Frequency/spectrum/dynamic range analysis?

June 13, 2012 12:54 PM

I always have a bugger of a job to get my demos to sound "full" without being cluttered, stifled or over-compressed. A common experience is that I'll play a demo in the car and think "yeah!!", then play a commercial recording, and then think "oh fuck.....". Mine always seem to be kind of thin or hollow. So.....I need to be able to analyse my recordings to see where the gaps are in, say, mid-range so that I can try to get a fuller sound via EQ. Any ideas?
posted by MajorDundee (38 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

The best tool I have seen for doing this is Ozone, which is a suite of mastering tools which has some excellent analysis features for just this kind of thing. But you have to run it in a full fledged DAW, although if you sent me a good MP3 I could take a bunch of screenshots for you.

Don't underestimate the power of mastering. The tools are mindblowing these days. I bet if you sent me an example of something you were unhappy with, I could get it with a few degrees of a commercial mix just from mastering tools alone. Not just compression and EQ, but the super-advanced limiting, distortion, widening, exciting, bass emphasis, all that stuff. I know your tracks are super-clean so they are probably a delight to work with. Want me to have a shot at something?
posted by unSane at 5:55 PM on June 13, 2012

Also, laying out to tape and back again had an ENORMOUS effect on my stuff... suddenly sounded way more like a record. Again, I can try that if you want, and it's something you could do yourself very easily if you found a decent 1/4" machine.
posted by unSane at 5:57 PM on June 13, 2012

If you're just looking to get a picture of the spectrum and where things are falling, I've found Voxengo's freeware meter Span to be quite good. As with Ozone, it's a plugin so it needs to run in a DAW. I usually put an instance of it right over my DAW's master channel to get a feel for how the whole mix plays together, then solo individual tracks to see what each is contributing to the overall sound.
posted by anthom at 6:24 AM on June 14, 2012

many thanks guys - I'll check out the software you're recommending. In the meantime I'd be delighted unS if you'd take a shot at improving what I'm currently working on (it's another powerpop job). I'll upload it to here now so you can hear what my effort sounds like and so others can do a compare and contrast when you've taken a shot at it. I'll send you a dropbox link shortly via mefimail to download a WAV version to work with.
posted by MajorDundee at 12:51 PM on June 14, 2012

Cheers, Major, I got it and did a quick pass which I've sent back.

As I said in my memail, I think your combination of dry sounds + digital cleanness is the issue. It's not really a question of EQ, although I think you are bit light in the bass. It's more that you need some glue to pull everything together and dirty it up a bit -- the kind of stuff that happens in the desk and off the tape in an analog studio... crosstalk and harmonic distortion and so on.

We talked about those old Fleetwood Mac and Rod Stewart recordings which are bone dry but VERY warm... you have to do quite a lot of work to get digital sounding anything like that.

One thing that might work for you is to use a tube pre-amp or compressor on your sources, and maybe even run your final mix through a tube compressor, even if it's not doing that much compressing. (Although the mix you sent me was impressively loud!).
posted by unSane at 2:13 PM on June 14, 2012

I would agree with Unsane, that the hollowness you are describing gets filled in during the mastering process with a buss based compressor. If you don't have tons of money, I suggest Cytomic's "The Glue" compressor on your final mix.

You aren't going to get that super warmness that you are used to hearing from older recordings without passing your mixes through a final analog buss or down to tape.
posted by djdrue at 5:28 PM on June 14, 2012

The Glue is really good, I agree, if you are on a software DAW but I think the good Major does his recording on a hardware DAW so he either needs a hardware solution or needs to get his feet wet in the software DAW world.

There are a couple of other software solution I like -- the Waves Kramer Master Tape a lot although it still doesn't quite get that silky smoothness you get off the real thing.

The T-Racks Opto Compressor is a thing of wonder.

However for the Major I think my recommendation would be for a Teac or Revox 1/4" half-track tape machine. You then have a lot of control about how hard you hit the tape (and how you bias it, if you really want to get nitty gritty). Plus they are really, really cool physical things.
posted by unSane at 6:43 PM on June 14, 2012

I can't stand the whole mastering part after I've tracked and mixed a song. I find it absolutely tedius; too many options and too many different things to consider. You run around playing your final track in your car, then your kitchen, then on your iPod, etc. etc. and inevitably it sounds like shit on one of them. You are torturing yourself to play some old Steely Dan album or whatever and then your own song right after. It will never be the same; there is a reason mastering engineers exist and good ones are sought after. Embrace the lo-fi, I say.
I have Ozone and the temptation to shovel all kinds of shit on top your mix is hard to resist. Excite! Widen! Sparkle! I may occasionally use it for a bit of widening but lately I just mix things as close as possible to how I want them to sound and then season sparingly with some Vintage Warmer, with a limiter on the master out bus. Unsophisticated yes, but good enough for the masterpieces that I'm creating 5 feet away from the ever-rushing toilet pipes in my junk-strewn, cement-floored basement.
posted by chococat at 8:14 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think mastering your own stuff is a complete can of worms. Presumably you got it to sound as good as you could on the mix -- and then you have to make it 'better' in mastering. And to make matters worse you're using the same monitoring environment and monitors.



I end up doing almost nothing when mastering my own stuff for all the reasons you mention. I do a bit of limiting and some warming and a tiny TINY bit of widening but honestly? I already made it sound as good as I could. The tape thing is a bit of a game-changer though and I totally endorse that.

But if someone else sends you a track, it's much MUCH easier to throw it into Ozone or whatever and start having fun. To me it's usually pretty obvious what's missing -- some glue, some bottom end, some clarity, a bit of excitement. And I know how to do that stuff. If I spend an hour on it, that's a long while.

But it's almost impossibel to do it to your own productions.

Maybe we should set up a mastering exchange.
posted by unSane at 8:23 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hopefully once Major Dundee and I arrive a mastered mix that is halfway decent (even if it's not perfect) then he'll post them both and we can have a bit of blather about whether it works or not and those who are not tuned in to what difference mastering makes can weigh in too.
posted by unSane at 8:29 PM on June 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's interesting reading the comments from choco and unS because even though you guys get as frustrated as I do, your recordings always sound really good and full to my ears. So you're obviously doing something right! It might simply be that my songs suck!

I find the whole hit and miss thing a complete frustration. It can drive me to despair and really chucking everything out of the fucking window - all that "compare and contrast" stuff that choco is alluding to. I think the only track I've ver done that actually sounds really good on anything is "White Feather". And that, clearly, was a total bloody fluke.

What I'm really looking for - and what this post is fishing for - is that there must be some kind of analytical software that allows me to see the track in an EQ and dynamics sense (rather than hear it) and then compare its aural signature visually with other stuff. It might then be possible to fiddle around with it - again visually/manually - to get the signatures closer. That sounds counter-intuitive - not actually listening while this is going on - put I guess I'm looking for a scientific solution to a subjective artistic that'll be a fucking hiding to nothing then...I'm also looking for a foolproof formula to write million-selling songs:-))
posted by MajorDundee at 2:20 AM on June 15, 2012

There are plenty of frequency-analysis plugins (although they mostly need to be hosted in a DAW), but I don't necessarily think that's the solution here.

Mixing your own songs is always a little bit difficult--there's always some little part you're in love with, or a sound you're not crazy about, and you adjust the mix to accentuate or hide things that maybe you oughtn't. You've got a great arrangement and impossibly-tight playing, and you're not making the most of it.

I think a really big part of what you've done here is to over-accentuate the (excellent) guitar tracks and really bury the drums and bass. Now, it may just be that the patches you're using for those have no coglioni (I poked through the bits of your catalog here that I missed: "Shiny New Thing Make It All Better" appears to have a better overall balance and, perhaps, different patches?). If that's the case, you're somewhat sunk (although if it were me, great rolling waves of warm distortion judiciously mixed into those tracks would be my starting point).

It seems to me that a great deal of the "problem" here, if there is one, is balance, not treatment. A 2-buss compressor and some EQ will do it some good, but I think you ought to drop the faders down to -inf and bring them back up one at a time, starting with the kick, snare, and bass.

Then again, I mostly think "giant rock mix," so maybe I'm off here. (I still have some tracks of unSane's that I never got around to playing with ... they hit me right when life got "interesting" for a long while.)
posted by uncleozzy at 5:17 AM on June 15, 2012

That's exactly what Ozone does in the metering section, Major. There's even a feature where you can sort of sample your frequencies over a whole song and then compare the overall frequency curve to the supposed industry standard.

I find it completely useless.

Most DAWs have a meter which will show you your RMS levels (root mean square, ie how loud it actually sounds) vs peak levels, and there is a new standard called K14 which is supposed to put an end to the loudness wars. But again I don't find it that useful except as a sanity check.

Anytime you end up mixing with your eyes and not your ears you just end up further down the rabbit hole.

I think you have really good ears and there is nothing wrong with your mixes in themselves... you have very (very) well recorded sources and an extremely well balanced and thought out mix. But because you like to run everything very dry -- there's almost no reverb or delay on anything -- it tends to sound like what it is, which is a bunch of sources recorded separately.

What you're missing is earcandy (my old band name!). That could be anything from a trace of reverb on the whole mix, to harmonic distortion from a tube preamp or a tube compressor, to a bit of delay on the voice and guitars, to some fancy EQ, to slamming it onto tape, to God knows what, or a combination of everything.

I think your rhythm section is the biggest problem -- the bass sounds rather British and polite and DI'd and doesn't really have any real low end thump to it, and the drums sort of sit in the background and play along. Without changing a note of either there's a lot you could do in terms of the sound by adding harmonic distortion and a bit of (?tape) compression, and EQing the bass differently so it sits a bit lower.

The mastering plugins like Ozone are full of presets but it's very rare that any of them make your track sound better. About 80% of the time when I try one I'm all 'Jesus God no!', and the rest only really serve as a starting point, and I end up turning all the sliders down to 25%. Most of the time it's easier to just start from scratch.

Anyway, long story short, I think you're looking for the fairy dust that historically great recording studios -- preamps, desks, tape machines, great-sounding rooms -- tended to add by default. And I suspect that isn't going to show up in a graph....
posted by unSane at 5:24 AM on June 15, 2012

Also, I think Uncle Ozzy is dead right about the bass and drums. They always seem like the red-headed stepchildren in your mixes -- it's time to give them some love.
posted by unSane at 5:27 AM on June 15, 2012

PS you could always post the stems and have a little remix experiment...
posted by unSane at 5:34 AM on June 15, 2012

Yeah, not to make it a pile-on, but I'm seconding uncleozzy & unSane re: the drums & bass, especially on "stories 'bout you." You need to dirty 'em up a little bit. marienbad name-checked The Jam on the song post, and I can totally see that, but the song as it sits is missing a bit of that "sense of fun" that the great power-pop acts have, and frankly I think that's because it's pretty obvious that the drums & bass are totally artificial, in contrast with the guitars & vocals, which are, I dunno, tight but human (if you see what I mean?).

Like first maybe go in & loosen up the drum & bass sequences - "unquantize" them a little bit. Then take a stereo mix of the drum tracks & run 'em through some tube or tape compression, maybe just the slightest hint of distortion, then into some kind of reverb, so the whole drum part kind of smears together a little. Then you can bump the drums up in the mix without it sounding too clinical.

Or to put it another way, I'm really not sure that a spectrum analyzer is really going to help much, because I think the issue is not your recordings or your mixes or (hell, no) your songs. I'm hearing "missing warmth" because the drums & bass sound really too "hi-fi" or "scooped mids", which of course is pretty common with drum machine stuff. Example: the crash cymbals are all just "pshhhhhhhhh", like 5kHz & up, while real crash cymbals can have a lot of info from 1 k to 5 k. The toms are pretty much lacking anything in the 200 - 400 Hz range - real toms are full of that stuff.

Work on getting/finding/making more "natural" drum & bass tracks. That's what's kind of jumping out at me - the song, the guitars and the vocals are fucking fantastic, but they're backed by a clinical machine rhythm section.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:24 AM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay, here's some dicking around with tape layback and mastering from me. These are all from a WAV that Major sent me. They are 320 MP3s so you should be able to hear everything properly.

This first is a straight layback from tape (a Revox PR99 running at 15 ips). I set the levels so it was just peaking into the red. My machine is set up for a lot of headroom, so there really shouldn't be much harmonic distortion on this, just a bit of tape compression and glue. I normalized this afterwards, so it just peaks at 0dB.

Ten Stories - Tape Layback (Normal)

I'm not hearing a huge difference here, which is a good thing, because it's a pretty hifi tape machine and it's set up well.

Then I did the same thing but pushed the levels more so it was running in the red, basically turned the knob up from 6.5 to 7.5. I think that's about 3dB or so. Normalized like the first one.

Ten Stories - Tape Layback (Hot)

Now you can start to hear a difference I think. There's a bit of harmonic distortion on the crunchy guitars and the perceived level is louder because of the tape compression. It definitely sounds 'better' to me. The tape is definitely saturating because even though it went out 3dB hotter, it came back at more or less the same level as before.

Okay, so then I put those two laybacks through some Ozone. I started with one of the rock mastering presets and then dialled back all the sliders to about 30% of where they started, and backed the limiting out almost completely. I tried adding a tiny bit of reverb to the whole mix but it didn't work at all -- it filled in all the spaces in a bad way.

I also put this through a tube EQ plugin to bring up the bass a bit, basically a little push at 100Hz.

So here's the result of that. The chain is bass EQ + overall 'smile' EQ + harmonic distortion + 4-band compression + widening + limiting. All pretty moderate.

Ten Stories - Tape Layback (Normal) + Ozone

Ten Stories - Tape Layback (Hot) + Ozone

Then, just for shits and giggles, I ran the hot version through the same chain but with all the Ozone setting put to their defaults. So this has a TON of harmonic distortion, compression and limiting on it.

Ten Stories - Tape Layback (Slammed)

I have my own favorite but I'll keep it to myself for now.
posted by unSane at 7:55 AM on June 15, 2012

I'm going to check these mixes out in just a sec, but before that I want to say a big fankyew to unSane for spending so much time messing about with this. I owe you a pint mate. If I can reciprocate in any way let me know - guitar for hire etc.

Comments above are all valid and well made - I particularly like the red-headed stepchildren analogy re bass and drums. These are usually pretty perfunctory and all done on a Korg Triton (so no plug-ins) - and, well, it shows doesn't it. I guess in the end it's a combination of inertia and what I think at base is a rather technophobic part of my persona that really isn't very comfortable with software and layers of menus and having to remember various pathways to get to something I want. I'm very spontaneous musically - I like to write and record stuff while the muse is with me - and messing about with gear is kind of a dead hand on things to me. It's a sort of coitus interruptus! Basically - I need an engineer and a band, so I can just show up, call out the changes and slam the stuff down. Not gonna happen anytime I should stop, as John Cooper Clarke might put it, mithering. Coincidentally, he's playing at a town very near me (Gloucester) in October.

Oh and the next time there's a metafilter music podcast it surely has to be called "Shits and Giggles" - what a fantastic title!
posted by MajorDundee at 8:14 AM on June 15, 2012

Do you really want the stems unSane? I mean - it seems like I'm kind of taking advantage of your good nature or something. But, jeez, if you want 'em I'll see if I can dropbox 'em. In fact - if anyone else wants to have a go at a remix - to show your chops as producers/engineers or what have you - let me know and I'll send you a link. And, if you do have a go, feel free to replace anything you like, add to it, whatever you wanna do. Could be very interesting.....

I might not be out of radio contact later on mind you - England are playing Sweden at the European Championships and I shall be cheering them on. Sweden that is.......c'mon, I'm a Scot...
posted by MajorDundee at 8:25 AM on June 15, 2012

I might not be out of radio contact. "not" is obviously a typo.
posted by MajorDundee at 8:29 AM on June 15, 2012

Yeah, I'd love to have the stems, Major -- not least to hear the individual tracks. I won't spend a ton of time on it, so don't feel bad!
posted by unSane at 8:45 AM on June 15, 2012

tape layback (hot) + ozone gets my vote. Sounds great! Although, if I'm being my usual picky self, there is a bit of digital distortion (i.e. that characteristically nasty sizzle/frying sound) in the left stereo channel during the hooky guitar figure bits at the end of the chorus and in the intro. But, hey, it is me being picky.
posted by MajorDundee at 8:54 AM on June 15, 2012

Yeah, that was my favorite too. I'll listen for that sizzle...
posted by unSane at 9:02 AM on June 15, 2012

The sizzle is off the tape track. I'll pull back the levels until it goes.
posted by unSane at 9:07 AM on June 15, 2012

unSane, you might want to double-check your links. Unless this is a psychoacoustic experiment.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:17 AM on June 15, 2012


Let's try that again...

Tape Normal

Tape Hot

Tape Normal + Ozone

Tape Hot + Ozone


I just replace the hot+ozone with a version that doesn't have the distortion in it -- you'll get the old one until that finished uploading I think.

Sorry about the confusion!
posted by unSane at 9:24 AM on June 15, 2012

(For what it's worth, we did this once before a few years ago, and it was fun.)
posted by uncleozzy at 9:41 AM on June 15, 2012

That's a great mix, Ozzy. What did you use to replace the percussion - your ears, or...?
posted by unSane at 9:56 AM on June 15, 2012

It was locked to a click. I just sequenced a few loops.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:30 AM on June 15, 2012

Shitty is pretty.

I am also in favor a mastering club. Not that I would be a very good member, but I would certainly aspire.
posted by Doleful Creature at 2:55 PM on June 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am also in favor a mastering club. Not that I would be a very good member, but I would certainly aspire.

that sounds kind of dirty
posted by chococat at 3:47 PM on June 15, 2012

dirty is purty
posted by unSane at 9:57 PM on June 15, 2012

That shitty is pretty article is awesome.
Love this part about chord changes with respect to funk: "Chord changes in the main part of the song are not commom. If you want to be adventurous you might get away with a groove that alternates between the I chord and the IV chord, but your best bet is probably just to lock in some mean parts on one chord and stay there. If you can't get into the idea of playing one chord for a whole song, put down this magazine immediately and go find yourself a nice Beatles songbook."
posted by chococat at 11:07 PM on June 15, 2012

"Chord changes in the main part of the song are not commom. If you want to be adventurous you might get away with a groove that alternates between the I chord and the IV chord, but your best bet is probably just to lock in some mean parts on one chord and stay there"

That's a very familiar thing and, without having read the article, strikes me as coming from the muso's perspective. I kind of disagree with this to some extent. We've all been there playing this kind of stuff - you get locked down and everyone on stage starts giving each other goofy grins and mouthing "oh yeah!!". And 'cos it feels good you carry on......and on......and.. Problem is that although you might be enjoying it onstage, the punters will start glancing at their watches after a while. This "locking round a groove" thing is (and I'm aware that this is somewhat polemic) both the strength and weakness of funk. So the really good bands - Sly & The Family Stone (who I utterly adore) for instance - tend not to hover too long in one lockdown. Obviously loads of people will disagree with that!
posted by MajorDundee at 2:48 AM on June 16, 2012

I think you're both right, really. The 1-chord vamp is so often done badly by bands who take it as an excuse to trade solos or just play the same thing over and over with no goal in sight, but there are some transcendent examples of it where the tension builds and builds and builds until finally they take it to the bridge and, holy cow.

My absolute favorite example of this is The Fatback Band's Bus Stop, where the whole song is built out of the tension they build into a I-chord vamp and then the way it releases when they go to the second chord in the chorus.

The anticipation as you wait for them to FINALLY get to the next chord -- they string it out further and further as the song goes on -- is marvellous. I don't dance much any more but that was one of my favorite things ever to dance to.

Then there are the songs built entirely out of a I-chord. Brass Construction's Movin' (which is disco-funk more than funk really) is a terrific example of that, 6'40" on one chord.

Lots of afro-funk is basically one chord too.

Last year for our Canada Day thing we covered the fairly ridiculous Oh, What a Feeling by Crowbar, which is D7 and be there, and one of the most fun things I've ever had to play.

Has the 1-chord thing been done as a challenge yet?
posted by unSane at 5:58 AM on June 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hey Major, I've been thinking a bit about your most straightforward route to getting where you want to be.

If you can lay down your bass tracks using a cheap Squier or Peavey bass then I think that's half your problem solved.

The other half is the drums.

I presume your Triton has midi out. What you would do is put all your drums on (say) midi channel 10 and plug a midi cable into your Triton's midi out. Then this would go to a midi/audio interface attached to your laptop. In your laptop you'd be running something like Native Instruments Kontakt, set to pick up the midi information from the interface.

Inside Kontakt you'd have your drum samples of choice being triggered. With most of the good sample sets you can do all your drum mixing -- EQ, compression etc -- inside Kontakt, so you could simply send a stereo signal out to your DAW.

Alternatively you could do them drum by drum or whatever you fancy.

I'm not saying there would be some headscratchers in there but it shouldn't be too bad.

You could obviously use Kontakt to host whatever other samples you wanted, organ or bass or piano or whatever.
posted by unSane at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2012

I've been looking at the Native Instruments stuff after reading the advice above. Slightly confused as to whether the Abbey Road software (there's a 70's version that appeals) can be run independently of the Kontakt stuff. Because these things seem to be packaged together and are pretty expensive.

Thanks again unSane for the guidance - that's the kind of advice I was after as a total IT numpty. Doesn't look like that would defeat even me, is the next port of call. I really do need to sort this drum thing out. It's beginning seriously to limit my musical adventures and once you feel your head banging against the ceiling because of limitations like that it tends to make you feel that there ain't nowhere else you can take things.

The bass is no problem technically - but selling my Precision a few years back is now looking like a serious error.
posted by MajorDundee at 12:20 PM on June 18, 2012

Major, the Abbey Road stuff comes bundled with the Kontakt 5 player on the DVD so you wouldn't need to buy any other software. But you don't have to go that route... other people swear by Addictive Drums and Stephen Slate Drums although I haven't used either of 'em.
posted by unSane at 12:37 PM on June 18, 2012

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